Friday, February 25, 2011

-14 Below Zero

You can get used to anything. Really. It's surprising, I know, but I am now getting used to living in snow. If you would have asked me a year ago if I could be comfortable living in a climate where snow was simply a daily reality and that temperatures were an average 60º lower than where I was living, I would have just laughed. Really. But I am now living in a place where snow is as soft as fine powder, people don't go nuts when driving in below freezing weather and when you go outside you need a scarf to cover your face because the possibility of frostbite is a daily reality.

The picture on the left is of my commute to the bunkhouse yesterday at about 5:30pm. The temperture was 0º with a windchill of -22ºF. Visibility was limited to about 50 yards. What you are seeing is snow being blown across the road from east to west. It wouldn't just come straight across though. It would swirl too and so the angle was constantly changing. It was difficult to see the road, almost disorienting. The effect it had on the sun and moon was interesting too. Obviously, it obscured them, but it also produced some interesting effects. I saw my first winter rainbow yesterday for example. I am not quite sure how the rainbow was created, though I can only assume that the angle of the sun through the blowing snow somehow created it.

This kind of weather, normal for the Gallatin valley, is also reflected in the actions and attitudes of the people. The ruggedness of the weather creates an interesting character. There is a craving for community, an openness and a deeper desire to understand the things of God. The natural beauty of the valley lends itself to the existential questions of life, but the harshness of the winters - which last roughly from November to May! - also embeds a deep respect for the power of God. You must respect the cold and the snow in the same way a Texan respects thunderstorms in the spring and heat in the late summer.

Just an observation.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Cateye Cafe

The "Cateye Cafe" pictured at left is on Tracy street, just north of Main street in downtown Bozeman, Montana. It is an extraordinary place and I don't mean just because the food is good. Located in the old telephone company building, it is owned and operated by Tina and Kevin. Tina and Kevin are fun. Tina is a native of Montana and Kevin, her husband is a native New Englander. She is the personable host and he is the creative chef. The dining room is small, but the personalities are large. Wait service is excellent. It is both personable and efficient. The food is spectacular. (I suggest trying the banana bread french toast!) All walks of life can be found at the cafe. It is open for breakfast and lunch daily, and dinner on Friday and Saturday. Now this is not simply a 'plug' for a good eating establishment. What I have found there is a representative of the postmodern life: a life that eschews traditional religious expression, yet is simultaneously desperate for the good news.

At the Cateye, the secular crowd gathers for community. People find fun, food and personal acceptance. It is a rudimentary fellowship, bound together by the ethos of its owners, who function as both hosts and priests. The people who gather there find love and acceptance, sprinkled with a little joy. The most injured of human beings find an atmosphere where they can let down their guard and laugh a little while they enjoy a feast.

I sometimes wonder if the church couldn't learn from the Cateye and I couldn't learn a little more from Kevin and Tina.

An Outpost of Love: Addendum

A friend of mine wants me to go further on my ideas. But before I can explore the "outpost of love" further, I need to post an addendum. My journey has been one of agnostic 20 year old to charismatic to fundamentalist to generous Evangelical and then simply to generous Christian. It has been an interesting journey. When I look back on this journey, I think two things. First, I see a life in process with God and second, I observe what it means to take scripture seriously. Let me take these two observations in order.

1) A Life in Process with God. It has now been 27 years since Christ came into my life. It has been a life that has reflected Psalm 150, Psalm 51, Psalm 150 and Psalm 27. There have been spiritual highs and lows. I have experienced grave disappointment and deep sadness but I've also experienced tremendous victory and the accompanying joy. As I look back on these 27 years I can see how God has used time, circumstance and Spirit to lead me along and indeed to shape me. I am who I am because of the great I AM. It is indeed a 'walk', a journey and as well a 'shared' walk or journey. Although there have been times where I walked without human company, God has always been there. The journey is shared first and foremost with Father-Son-Spirit and then with other human beings. I have been lonely, but I have never been alone since Christ came into my life. Now, I see life not only as participation in and with God, but as one of becoming* - by 'becoming' I mean transformation into that instrument which God utilises for His glory, His Kingdom and the benefit of humanity. It is only in this participation and transformation that I gain my true self.

2) Taking Scripture Seriously. Aye, here's the rub. As a young Christian, I became involved with fundamentalist influences. I don't see this as a negative, simply part of the process. For if there is one thing in which fundamentalists excel, it is taking scripture seriously. Many of my more 'permissive' friends don't truly take scripture seriously. Now don't get me wrong; they read and preach the bible - but problematically, they don't take its claims as seriously as they could, or as I argue, should. They have allowed another ideology- usually science, history or secular psychology - to determine how they will handle or understand the scriptures. Sadly, this approach to scripture inevitably leads to a diluted faith and a weak theology. In extreme cases it leads to a biblical atheism or unitarianism, where one posits the existence of God, but the Father is Mother, the Son is not deity and the Spirit is an ambiguous 'world consciousness'.

This is not acceptable to the fundamentalist. Of course, they have their own set of bizarre problems. They too tend towards a biblical unitarianism but it functions through a focus on the sovereignty of God the FATHER ALMIGHTY, and then proceeds to treat the balance of the divine Trinity hierarchically: the Son is divine, but he only gets it from the FATHER ALMIGHTY, thus it is a derivative divinity. The Spirit is the 'toady' of the Trinity, the errand boy of the Father or according to my fundamentalist pentecostal friends, the essence of God that motivates Father and Son, and, for a generous love offering and slaying of the Spirit, can be at your beck and call. Now I don't want this to become too negative or harsh, for I have benefitted from my Charismatic brethren as well. More importantly, in order to maintain a literalist, scientific approach to scripture, my fundamentalist friends have to affirm crazy millennial schemes, the marginalisation of women from ministry, the denigration of any type of evolutionary science and an exclusive focus on penal-substitutionary atonement as the only explanation of Jesus' death. If anything, my friends are not fundamentalists, but rather, 'saddamentalists'.

Let me make my point. Out of this trajectory, I have taken scripture seriously; and if one takes scripture seriously, you end up not with a rigid confessional theology as much as a theological ethos. I could not remain a fundamentalist because in actually reading and wrestling with the truth in scripture, I could no longer affirm the strange theological schemes and vacuous, angry ethic. I could not remain a Pentecostal or Charismatic because of their generally skewed understanding of the Holy Spirit.

What I found in taking scripture seriously was that a life informed by God does not dead end in confession, but rather explodes outward in transformation.

If we take scripture seriously, we find that God wants a personal relationship that results in a peripatetic, Jesus-like life. A life of grace, mercy and unconditional love. A life of loving the enemy, where forgiveness is our lone weapon. A life poured-out. Paul understood this. Peter understood this. John, James and Philip understood this.

Yet far too often, modernist, American Christianity emasculates the truth of the gospel and the scriptures in favor of an individualistic, commercialist corruption.

Too many well intended, bible-reading Christians make the confession of faith, only to hold transformation at arm's length. In this fashion, they can control the operation of God in their life. Their walk with God becomes stunted, precisely because they refuse to allow God to be in control of their transformation. The Christian life becomes a neat, tidy, acceptable way of living. They can even get away with a little sin if they are crafty enough. This is American Christianity at its best. I have lived this form of Christianity and it is ultimately vacuous and unsatisfying.

I want more and if you take scripture seriously, how you view and live life changes.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

An Outpost of Love

It has been interesting cycle, ministering in Montana for 9 days, then back to Brownwood for 5 days and repeat. In all fairness, two of those five days in Brownwood are travel days. Nevertheless, I consider it a great privilege to teach my courses and simultaneously get to know a new community of people. Although it is physically demanding, it is also mentally stimulating!

What I want to share with you though is not my personal travel and schedule. It is a developing set of ideas.

1)People are sinners. All of us have some idea of this concept, it is not new. Sinners are not necessarily 'bad' or 'evil' - there are some people out there who obey the laws, go to work, have families and retire, but are still separated from God. We see this separation from God in our generally self-focused behaviors. In business speak, we are not maximizing our potential as human beings. We are unrealized. However, our generally selfish approach to life coalesces into a communally tragic situation over time. Our sinful condition manifests itself in anger, lying, greed, lust and a multitude of over painful behaviors. We are in desperate need of God.

2) Salvation is transformation. Salvation is not found in a confession of faith or even in a set of theological principles. Salvation begins with grace, resulting in confession, profession and transformation. Thus, our confession begins a transformation - a living theology. We are judged by the Creator in the end of time, not based simply upon our confession, but on the accompanying transformation! (See below) Most Christians don't get the transformation part because it is humbling. We like feeling superior; we like the fact that "we are chosen" and they are "not." Pride is always the final sin to go and it is replaced with a self-controlling humility. But the end of transformation isn't simply humility.

3) The end of salvation is love. God is love, agape love (1 John 4). Agape is "selfless concern for the other." Agape is not simply a noun, but a verb. One does not simply possess love; one lives love. Or better, love is lived through us. When love is lived, it becomes a fixed aspect of life and takes on objective, noun-like qualities. Understood in this fashion, salvation is the process where we learn to live in relationship with God, who is love, and allowing God, who is love, to love others through us. Jesus stated, "By this all men will know that you are my disciples if you have love for each other" (NIV). We have often interpreted this 'each other' as 'one another' - this is a legitimate translation, just not a good interpretation. We naturally interpret this as others 'like us' - Christians. This is the ornery residue of the sin nature, the natural man, seeking the easiest path, the wide road. But the Spirit gently directs us 'other' wise!

But I believe it is best to understand 'other' as those not us. To love each other then becomes the command to love each person that is not us. Hence, Jesus tells us to love our enemies, to forgive those who abuse us and even those who would kill us - "forgive them father for they do not know what they do..." (Luke 23:34). We are to love as Jesus loved.

In Matthew 25:31-46, "The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats," the sheep, those who "entered into their rest" (heaven), did not do so based upon confession, but rather on transformed living. The sheep did not even realize that their lives were characterized by unconditional, selfless concern for the other. Their lives were lived love. They were transformed and being transformed.

4) The Church is a Movement of Agape-Love. Awash in the inner strength of the Holy Spirit, the church - made up of persons brimming with the Love of God as the Holy Spirit - penetrates its community. Rather than being a specific social strata of people who gather for a few hours each week for worship and discipleship, the church is the ekklesia, those called out by God to demonstrate the righteousness of God in selfless concern for the other.

My home church has started a project called, "Love Brownwood." That is the heart of what we are called to be and do. We go to the laundromat, to the impoverished neighborhood, the hurting professionals, the struggling businesses and we live selfless concern for the other. No fancy programs, no slick bible-teaching, no contemporary worship can replace the command to love. The church is an outpost of love, sending out sorties into the world, so that person by person, community by community, our world is changed into what God intended from the beginning of time.